Charleston, S.C., is one of America’s most beautiful cities, but on June 29, I couldn’t see the beauty because the pain cloaked it so thoroughly. The day before, during a conference call of the leadership of the Urban League Movement, I had learned that one of the nine victims of the racist murders was the sister of Lillian Coakley, a retired National Urban League employee and dear friend of the organization. As a valued colleague, Lillian and I had shared many light moments together over the years.
Finding myself to be even closer to the tragedy than I had known, I booked a flight for South Carolina because Lillian asked me to come. For not the first time, I was the sole African American on the plane, and as soon as I stepped into the airport I was asked, “Are you here for one of the funerals?” It wasn’t necessary to tell the cab driver my destination.
By 9:30 a.m., as I approached the church, sweltering Southern heat had already begun to bear down and me and the thousands of other mourners. We perspired together, accepted Gatorade from Red Cross volunteers, and made small talk. “This is our fourth service this week,” someone told me. Another found irony in the fact that all the Red Cross volunteers were White, while most of the mourners were Black. Even in this moment of healing, I was struck by the polarization.
I learned about the church. One of the oldest Black churches in the South, the Emanuel AME Church was founded by Denmark Vesey and served as a secret meeting place during the pre-Civil War era when Blacks were not allowed to congregate in churches. Vesey drew strength and inspiration from the biblical story of the exodus and made explicit comparisons between Black slavery and the Jewish slaves who fled Egypt.
Early in the 19th century, a plot laid here for a slave rebellion was violently suppressed, and Vesey and 34 others were executed. Whites burned the church down, but it was eventually rebuilt in the center of Charleston. Booker T. Washington spoke there in 1909. In 1962, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech about voting rights. The year after his assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King led a union march from Emanuel AME’s steps, with a thousand state troopers and national guardsmen looking on.
I learned more about Lillian’s sister, Myra Thompson. A former public school teacher and middle school guidance counselor, she had received her license to preach the day before the shooting. “This is a woman who I want to strive to be,” South Carolina’s Gov. Nikki Haley said of Thompson. She had two children, two grandchildren, 12 siblings, and 50 nieces and nephews, so it took three buses to bring all of her relatives to the house of mourning.
Under the relentless South Carolina sun, I had plenty of time to reflect, but no answers came. I thought about a previous trip with my wife to Luray Caverns in Virginia, where our awe at the natural wonder was besmirched by the great number of Confederate flags flying in the vicinity. I ruminated about the seemingly “over the top” opposition to our first Black president’s accomplishments, and how this massacre put so much history into perspective.
And I recited to myself this verse from the King James Version of the book of Exodus, which promises – in my interpretation – liberation that endures:
“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you today: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more forever.”
And as we wait, our work continues. But I will never forget my journey to Charleston.
George H. Lambert Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.